It’s here: Raptors vs. Warriors. Yes, the latter team is far from full strength — especially with the absence of Steph Curry and Draymond Green — but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s Golden State, here in Toronto, looking for a fight. I say we give it to them. (And yes, I’m well-aware that the film version of The Warriors are the good guys in the title’s cinematic allusion.)
Setting injured players aside, the central figure here is, as per usual, Kawhi Leonard. The Raptors’ main man hasn’t seen the Warriors since Game 1 of the 2017 Western Conference Finals — you know the one: the Spurs were up big, with Kawhi going off for 26 points and 8 rebounds in 23 minutes before getting conveniently injured (taken out); they went on to lose that game, get swept in the series, and watch the whole script flip. It’s just another game for everyone involved now, but I like to believe Leonard has reasons to get extra up for this one in particular.
Anyway, Leonard is the kind of player designed to battle with the Warriors, and if there was ever a time he could show his worth to Toronto, in a non-playoff situation, this would be it. It could be a first true taste of the Kawhi Leonard difference. And that’s because his opposite in this one is perhaps the best all-around scorer on the planet: Kevin Durant. If the Raptors are to have any chance against this, or any version, of Golden State, they have to slow KD down. Fortunately, with Kawhi (and Pascal Siakam, let’s not forget) they can put up more than token resistance.
There, the table is set. Now, let’s get to the details for the game, the presumptive lineups, and a few things to keep an eye on as tonight’s game eventually develops.
Where to Watch:
TSN and TNT at 8pm
Toronto - Kyle Lowry, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, Pascal Siakam, Serge Ibaka
Golden State - Quinn Cook, Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala, Kevin Durant, Damian Jones
Toronto - Norman Powell (out - shoulder)
Golden State - Stephen Curry (out - groin), Draymond Green (out - toe), Alfonzo McKinnie (out - foot), DeMarcus Cousins (out - Achilles, of course)
Control the Pace
Even without Curry, the Warriors are usually at their best when they’re getting up and down the floor, raining threes, and generally sowing discord every which way. Opposing teams panic, and then they crumble. Obviously, that’s easier to do with Curry is playing, but it’s still something of a modus operandi for the entire Warriors squad.
The twist this season, due to injury or lethargy: the Warriors are playing at a pace that puts them in the middle of the pack in the NBA (literally 15th). The Raptors meanwhile at up in 12th — they also, for what it’s worth, have a slightly higher offensive rating at 114.3 (second overall) to the Warriors’ 114.2. What this all means is that the Raptors should look to assert themselves and play the kind of game they want to play. If the Warriors want to give the ball to Durant and slow things down, fine, but that doesn’t mean Kawhi has to sit back and take it slow — or vice versa. In one sense, the Raptors are indeed taking on the Goliath of the NBA, but in another sense: that doesn’t mean they have to be David with a slingshot — they can just be a bigger Goliath (if that makes sense — it made sense in my head).
Don’t Fold Under Pressure
The above theory only works if the Raptors maintain their mental focus. On Tuesday night against the Grizzles, Toronto had every reason to collapse. They were down at the half, and Memphis was hitting all kinds of bananas long jumpers. It was frustrating. Then, later in the game, despite mounting a comeback, the Raps were dumped back down by nine points. This was their first real test in over a week. So what did Toronto do? They calming drilled three straight 3s — from OG Anunoby, Delon Wright, and Fred VanVleet — to tie the game, then they took the lead, and won the dang thing.
Against the Warriors, the game can speed up or slow down, they have some of the very best shot makers in the league — with Durant and Thompson known in particular for back-breaking runs. But Toronto has shown they have the fortitude to weather all of it. Now they just have to put it all together tonight against the team they’d most like to beat and prove it once again.
Use Your Strengths
The Raptors may have some strengths in the frontcourt to take advantage of tonight. For one, Jonas Valanciunas may not feel much pressure in the post; for two, Serge Ibaka could make whoever ends up guarding him really have to work; and then there’s Pascal Siakam, who may be a problem for Durant, or anybody else. Without Draymond Green there to get in anyone’s head (and I’ll be honest, Siakam might be a guy who could be disrupted by Green’s smarts), the Warriors are much softer up the middle. This is no slight to Kevon Looney, Damian Jones, or Jordan Bell — but the Raps have a bit of a lead down low.
In the backcourt, in the absence of Curry, we can presume that Lowry, Wright, and VanVleet, can let loose just a tad more. They won’t have to spend their night worrying about the greatest shooter on the planet, and their main opposition will be Quinn Cook (plus a looming Klay Thompson). On balance, Toronto’s got more firepower (on this night anyway).
It’s a small distinction, but that may be the final lesson to apply here when talking about playing the Warriors: every edge counts, every plus counts, every play counts. The Raptors have to execute their game plan, stay strong, and eke out advantages where they can.